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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Analogue : Digital : : Insight : InSite ·

Recently I have been prompting class rewrites. It's often hard work. I read essays, add needed comments, schedule room conferences, coax reflection, cajole enterprise, and often promise help till the cows come home. Naturally, my work isn't all that formal, since it ambles casually in and out of classroom doors, plops comfortably down in armchairs, and gets done typically in hallways — often, in a rush, in the copyroom. Frankly, it's mostly messy, but I do like it. It has a nice, real-world, naturally "analogue" feel to it.

I was thinking about that word last week. I was chatting with Mike, a twin I have in English 101 now. Dan, his brother, is the better writer — an artist — but Mike has the more charming, digital personality as you might guess. I remember when I guessed right that Mike is a Fedora-Linux fan, and understandably thinks "open-source" means global salvation. Well, last week, when I tried to convince him that 99% of his life was lived in analogue, wouldn't you know he shot back, "Yeah, but I live for the digital."

So for Mike today — and for you, too — I've thought to provide, if not an Insight into writing as yet, at least an InSite into its current marketing.

Do enjoy.

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· A White Paper on Clarity ·

"Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy."

Roger Angell's New Yorker piece, Andy, on his stepfather E. B. White's prose, includes this sentence. I begin with his judgment for my students' sake, should they confuse ease of writing with ease of reading. It puts me in mind of Richard Sheridan's quip, "Easy writing makes vile hard reading," logically the regrettable obverse, and its all-too-frequent result.

Angell's own apt effort shines through in honor of White's limpid style, and his celebrated capacity for disciplined, pains-taking, ever-demanding work.

White's gift to writers is clarity [he writes]. . . . Clarity is the message of "The Elements of Style," the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers — the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian — through the whichy thicket. "Write in a way that comes naturally," it pleads. "Do not explain too much." Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer's life.

You can hear in these words — those of "adoption," as I'd call them — Angell's own acknowledgement of a quite natural identification with "more than ten million writers" like him, all of whom have profited from his stepfather's example.

He was a demanding worker [Angell adds]. He rewrote the first page of "Charlotte's Web" eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, "to let the body heat out of it." Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings. He was the first writer I observed at work, back in my early teens. Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write his weekly Comment page for The New Yorker — a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag, left out in the box by the road. "It's no good," he often said morosely afterward. But when the new issue turned up the next week the piece was good — unstrained and joyful, a snap to read.

Would that we all wrote so well, and worked so hard.

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· An L.A.-Style, Multicultural, Memorial Weekend ·

I spent the weekend remembering family in L.A. Flying Friday morning and returning Sunday night, I chanced to retrace on the ground — in a rented Dodge Neon — a line of memory apt to the point of my trip (my sister-in-law's recent death), and I thought to retrace it today. In Los Angeles tales develop naturally in multicultural style.

My wife and I began visiting my parents' gravesites near LAX. We'd cared for them before they died, Dad in 1990, Mom in 1993. Dad was the first native-naturalized American I'd ever known, a Minnesotan really (later a Canadian-American), and Mom found him, in L.A., to marry in 1942. We thought we'd brought Washington rain with us Friday to California, but we knew it was really sunny up north. (Dad, you should know, died of malignant melanoma, Mom of heart failure.)

There lay my uncle, too, and his lovely Jewish wife, my aunt, and beyond them my grandmother who died before I was aware in 1949. My Norwegian grandfather, who died in 1923, lies in Rainy Hills Cemetery on the plains of Alberta, Canada. As I wrote on my dad's death: "In youth he negotiated in Southern Alberta coulees on the Red Deer River; in maturity he negotiated the colossus we call Los Angeles."

We made our way north after stopping briefly for lunch by a park where I once pounded tennis balls against a wall in imitation of my tennis-playing cousin, Pancho, whose stepmom was my aunt (Willa Gonzales). Then off to my first house, now a small factory owned by Mexican-Americans working iron for Las-Vegas places like The Bellagio, The Venetian, and Mandalay Bay. Then we paused by David Wilson's nearby Museum of Jurassic Technology, where in the 1950s I'd had haircuts done by a vaguely British barber. I noticed the old Chinese restaurant two doors down was preparing Thai cuisine now.

Later that night we gathered in an Italian restaurant to recount tales of our American experiences. My cousin's husband, a Russian Orthodox priest's son, laughed along with us when my brother-in-law, a retired Swedish pastor, told how his own granddad had been forced to emigrate when he made the mistake of singing the Danish national anthem when Germans held sway in Silesia. Then we heartily laughed together as we recalled how Grandma might even have had some relation to Kaiser Bill.

Saturday's memorial service, I'm glad to say, was attended by some scores of other souls maybe with similar tales to tell. In any event, I think our JoAn — who died a month shy of her seventy-second birthday — would have enjoyed our fine mix of California-style memorializing.

To our beloved JoAn, then (1933 - 2005) — whose life led from Sacramento to L.A., but whose reach embraced the extended journey we can all take from sacrament to sainthood.

And that's one day short of "the rest of the story."

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· Veni, Vidi, Vici, Ulysses S. Grant Style ·

Last week I put grammatical moves on my students; I touted the strength of active verbs.

Comp teachers always have similar advice: to "prefer" them. We're so moved by them that, when passives appear, we are seen to hang our heads low, or at the sight of linkers, often to fall into a deep, existential angst. You might recall symptoms of that behavior even here, in my On Parsing English Justice.

Today I thought to beg the collegial but not yet psychological help of a great Civil War historian, James McPherson. His essay on Ulysses S. Grant, "The Unheroic Hero" (The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1999), I've long used to help students assess such verbs. McPherson's examples are instructive, not only in literature, but in life.

McPherson claims Grant's greatest stylistic achievements are two: "triumph in war, and success in writing [a] book [Personal Memoirs] in a race against death." Both are in turn based on a similar reality: "words," McPherson notes, not only "produce action — they become action."

Consider Grant's field orders in the Champion-Hill campaign at Vicksburg (1863): · General Ulysses S. Grant ·

To General Francis P. Blair, Jr.: Move at early dawn toward Black River Bridge. I think you will encounter no enemy by the way. If you do, however, engage them at once.

To General John A. McClernand: The entire force of the enemy has crossed the Big Black. . . . Disencumber yourself of your [supply] trains, select an eligible position, and feel the enemy.

To General James B. McPherson: Pass all trains and move forward to join McClernand with all possible dispatch.

To General William T. Sherman: Start one of your divisions on the road at once with its ammunition wagons. . . . Great celerity should be shown in carrying out the movement. The fight might be brought on at any moment — we should have every man on the field.

As McPherson explains, "[i]n the manner of Ceasar's Veni, vidi, vici, these sentences bristle with verbs of action: 'Move . . . engage . . . disencumber . . . select . . . feel . . . move . . . start.' Grant used few adjectives and fewer adverbs and then only those necessary to enforce his meaning: 'early dawn . . . engage at once . . . move with all possible dispatch . . . great celerity . . . every man.'"

 · Ex-President Ulysses S. Grant · Still more impressive was Grant's final battle against death. Fighting ruin and throat cancer, he rushed to finish his impressive Memoirs with a courageous command of language nowhere better shown than in a note, penned three weeks before his death, to his physician. Unable to speak, he wrote two short sentences every teacher might claim as the paradigmatic truth about verbs:


A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.


That life lesson, too, my own students have already begun to learn.

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